Welcome to a special Adventure(s) Time's installment, where we look at animated heroes of the past. If you have any suggestions, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.
This week, we're reaching the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Tim Burton's Batman. Why cover this here? Simply put, it's very likely that with no 1989 Batman, there's no Batman: The Animated Series. It's impossible for someone not alive at the time to appreciate the context, but before Burton's film, one image of Batman dominated the public's consciousness. And it belonged to Adam West.
Now, Adam West's 1960s performance as Batman is brilliant in its own right. Truthfully, West's mastery of irony and comedic timing is something most people only began to appreciate in recent years. (Unfortunately for West, for years he was merely dismissed by Hollywood as a bad actor.) But outside of the most dedicated of comics fans, Batman existed as a camp figure. The 1960s Batman, with its garish colors, celebrity guest stars, and shamelessly absurd plots existed as a cultural touchstone for years. And Warner Bros. knew to shake this image, drastic steps had to be taken.
Taking inspiration from the earliest issues of the comics, and the darker tone of 1980s bookshelf titles like Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, Tim Burton's Batman could in no way be mistaken for the Adam West show. And early response to this new take on Batman was not unanimously positive. Baby Boomers who grew up with Adam West viewed the idea of a "dark" Batman as, at the very least, odd. Comics fans, meanwhile, were outraged that Michael Keaton, an actor known for comedies and not exactly possessing a superhero's physique, had been cast as Batman.
Much of the naysaying died down with the release of the first trailer. The dramatic visuals, gothic Danny Elfman score, and the tease of Jack Nicholson portraying the Joker stunned audiences. In another "you had to be there" sign of the times, several people were paying for movie tickets specifically to watch the trailer, then leaving. Thieves were stealing Batman movie posters from theaters. Bootleg merchandise flooded store shelves. And, weeks before the movie's release, a Bat-emblem t-shirt became the hottest fashion trend.
It's easy to levy criticisms against the movie today. The script's uneven. Character actions often make little sense. The villain's far more interesting than the hero. And, if you're a Batman purist, it's difficult to forgive any portrayal of the hero willfully killing anyone.
The mood of the movie is perfect, however. And, at the time of its release, the public had never seen anything like Batman. A dark fairy tale, not quite set in reality, but carrying its own gravity. An action movie with an arthouse aesthetic. A troubled, disturbed leading man just as motivated by his inner demons as altruism. No, this was not Adam West.
Batman quickly became one of the highest grossing films of all time. Its merchandise bonanza rivaled even the success of Star Wars. And, while Warner Bros. decided at a certain point to drop the somber tone of the first film, one lesson did stick with the studio. People like Batman. And they want to buy Batman merchandise. Warner Bros. would not be standing in their way.
AND WE CAN'T FORGET THE INFLUENCE OF... TINY TOONS
Work on Batman: The Animated Series began a year after the film's release. A sequel was inevitable, and Warner Bros. wanted a new daily series on the air to coincide with its premiere. The animated Batman would also serve as another means of merchandising the character. A daily commercial for the brand, in a sense.
Proceeds from the merchandise justified a higher budget than the typical afternoon action cartoon. (There are also stories that Steven Spielberg, a producer on Tiny Toons, wouldn't do the show if it had a typically cheap TV budget. This set the precedent of Warners spending far more than other studios on their television animation.)
The influence of the Burton film on Batman: The Animated Series goes back to its earliest development. Co-creator Eric Radomski cites a Burton influence on his tryout for the show. (A painting of the lights of Gotham reflected on wet pavement.) Without a strong background in comics, Radomski credits the film for changing his views on Batman.
The series' other creator, Bruce Timm, has publicly thanked Burton for the 1989 film. (His specific quote from a 2006 issue of Wizard: "Thank God for the Tim Burton movie because it was so extremely darker than anybody had seen Batman before in any kind of mass media.") The movie's "otherworldly timelessness" inspired the producers to explore a "dark deco" look, heavily influenced by the '30s and '40s. Just as Burton's Batman doesn't seem to be taking place in any specific year, the animated series also exists in a fictional blend of today and yesterday.
SHADOW OF THE BAT
Some elements of the film are reflected on the show in minor ways. Using "Jack Napier" as the Joker's real name (an invention of the movie) in two episodes is one example. Other influences are impossible to miss. The original opening theme is written by Danny Elfman, who produced a score for Batman that rivals that of John Williams' Superman work. It's impossible to hear that music and not think "Batman."
The show's increased budget enabled an orchestra to perform original music written for every episode. The bulk of these scores were composed by Shirley Walker, who wrote music for the 1989 film with Elfman. Even if you didn't hear the bulk of these songs in the film, it felt like they should've been on the soundtrack.
The grapple gun Batman uses to navigate Gotham's skyline? Check the comics of the era and you'll see he still uses rope attached to a Batarang. The design has been altered, but the inspiration is clear. The movie got there first.
The solemn tone of the series? The occasionally violent action? The realistic guns? All forbidden on other adventure cartoons of the era. The darkness of the film, however, allowed the producers a pass. The network recognized Batman as a darker property, and didn't want the show to veer too far from the films.
THE ARRIVAL OF SCHUMACHER
Later films brought other influences, perhaps not as well-received. Debuting only a few months after the release of Batman Returns, the producers had to seek Burton's personal approval for their Penguin and Catwoman designs. Bruce Timm has acknowledged Catwoman's a blonde on the show to coincide with Michelle Pfeiffer's look. And the Penguin has long hair and flippers thanks to the...unique Batman Returns redesign.
Revamping the show as The New Batman Adventures in 1997, Warner Bros. wanted the series to move in the lighter direction introduced by new director Joel Schumacher. To coincide with the upcoming Batman and Robin film, Batgirl was made a recurring character. More color was also brought into the show. Whether or not the series truly "lightened" at all is up for debate, though. Some of the most disturbing episodes, such as "Mad Love," aired during this run.
Interestingly, the success of the cartoon would influence at least one Batman film of the era. 1997's Batman and Robin features the revised origin for Mr. Freeze, first seen in the episode "Heart of Ice." And it's unlikely Poison Ivy would've appeared in the movie, had the series not injected new life into the character. Previous installments certainly indicated the producers wanted villains made famous by the '60s television series. Only hardcore comics fans knew of Ivy before the cartoon.
"THE BEST BATMAN"
Another unusual connection to Batman and Robin is the animated feature Sub-Zero. It's no secret Warners wanted an animated Bat-film featuring Mr. Freeze to tie in with the movie. What's unclear is why they delayed its release for almost a year. One rumor had Warners smarting over the critical and commercial failure of Batman and Robin...and sensitive that a "cartoon movie" featuring similar material would receive better reviews.
And, really, almost any random Batman episode is better than the original movies. They're truer to the character, have sharper scripts, and are less reliant on gimmicks. But, thirty years later, we can't deny the influence of the first film. Without it, the classic Batman still loved to this day would be far different. If it even existed at all.
And if you think this image of a DC Animated Michael Keaton is cool, be sure to check out artist Rick Celis on Twitter. He produces DCAU-inspired drawings on a regular basis, and they're all amazing.
So that’s all for now. I've begun a new review series on Chris Claremont's 2000 return to the X-Men on my blog! You can also check out my Kindle Worlds novels for free over at Smashwords.